Another Eyewittness Account

Today, I received an email from an old friend, Dave Nixon. He forwarded an analysis written by a Marine who is currently serving in Iraq. Major David High is the Director of the Phoenix Academy. It is his task to train all the transition teams en route to their assigned Iraqi units. He has been in Iraq for some time now and felt compelled to update his family and friends as to the progress he is seeing in Iraq.

Please be aware that the following is one eyewitness’ understanding of current events in Iraq as of 1 April 2008.

The work we now face in Iraq is the most crucial part.

Richard S. Lowry is the author of Marines in the Garden of Eden and The Gulf War Chronicles.

Among the myriad challenges faced by the Iraqi people, foremost is that they have no historic reference for what they are experiencing – the choices and freedoms and potentialities with which they are experimenting all constitute uncharted waters. Any context for the present-day, painful political evolution in Iraq is purely academic and utterly foreign; the current civil/social engagement is unprecedented here.

For several months, many of us here have predicted that 2008 would be crucial for Iraq in two key areas: first, in logistical and infrastructural development (business generated to meet civil needs); secondly, in the one dominant unresolved sectarian issue – the peaceful participation of the Shia in the political process.

The Kurds in the north, having enjoyed 17+ years of autonomy and attendant economic prosperity, are happy to be left alone. Virtually no Americans have died there, and the community is readying itself for tourism and the world economy. Even the Turkish incursions are largely meaningless.(1)

The key to the future of northern Iraq and Kurdish participation in a Iraqi republic is the city of Kirkuk and who will profit from this economic engine.

The Sunnis, having witnessed the US commitment to preventing sectarian slaughter, are now trying to play catch-up from being left out of the political process through their own miscalculation. When I was in Al Anbar in 2005 (the heart of Sunni land), only 4,000 out of over 1 million potential voters participated. In practical terms, this meant the Sunnis tacitly agreed to stand by as The Occupiers and Shia got their just dessert – or so the Sunnis calculated. Bad call. They never imagined the alternative: two years of de facto Islamist, sharia rule that meant total societal repression and the beheadings of their children. The violence and disruption was so harsh that it spurred a “tipping point” reaction to the (95% foreign) Arab thugs, and Iraqi Sunni tribes were driven to create Al Sawah – The Awakening – to drive out heavy-handed Islamist occupiers.(2)

Of the 3 major population blocs, that left the downtrodden Shia, who were as surprised as anyone when the dominance of their numerical superiority (60+%) was confirmed in the elections of 2005.(3) Bottom rail was on top now…

Please hang with me while I give a short background to last week’s initial skirmish:

I teach that being Shia is more than just being born into a religious sect, it is a condition – just as being black in 1955 Birmingham was more than just having a particular skin color. (4)

Shiism was born in Iraq, and its holiest shrines are there. Persia/Iran shares the belief system, but only became its primary champion because the Shia were left voiceless by repression throughout the Arab world. The Ottomans, British, monarchs, and dictators all favored the Sunnis, who are dominant in the rest of Arabia. Over time, this favoritism grew into dependence, as each successive ruling authority turned to the group with the individual and collective education to run the government and institutions. Naturally, Sunni self-interest became tied to the state…and that meant no room for considering Shiite quality of life. The Shia underclass found succor from sources outside the state; namely, religious leaders offering hope and charity. Two brothers named Sadr, both learned, highly-respected imams, answered the despair of their people. Their direct charitable intervention, for example, met the survival needs of the 2+ million Shia trapped in the Baghdad ghetto that became known as Sadr City in their honor. Both paid a price by being executed by Saddam. After the fall of Saddam, as all the competing factions sought leadership, the son/nephew of these great men (to everyone’s surprise) arose. Moqtada al-Sadr had none of the gifts, experience, or education of his forbears, but he had the name. “Mookie”, as the Marines derisively nicknamed him, has been riding a wave of populism and demagoguery ever since.

In 2003, his followers killed Majid al-Khoie, a moderate Shia cleric that many viewed as the best hope for leadership. Militia groups – primarily known as the Madhi Army – arose and rallied under al-Sadr’s call, partly in self-defense, partly out of rage unleashed, but also in an opportunistic grab for self-enrichment. Suddenly, this unschooled, young benefactor of lineage had real power based on the unshackled despair of millions. Inexperienced at running amongst political heavyweights and unused to the high stakes of life-and-death power brokering, he has waffled along the way, squandering his opportunities…sometimes acting boldly, sometimes retreating from the scene to Iran.(5)

Back to the present:

His announcement last year to call a “truce” was, I think, a move of fear – the dirty secret was he couldn’t really control the rage and competing interests of those using his name (6), and so chose to “save face” by making a grand gesture of “concern for his people”. This was damage control to make the best of an untenable position, not a compassionate, selfless decision. Meanwhile, Iran, criminals, religious zealots, and local petite tyrants continued to recruit from and use his base of desperate people. Out of the sheer numbers of a resistant and restless population, the government in Baghdad became largely irrelevant in southern Iraq, while various opportunists grabbed their (first ever) chance for political power. One avenue to power was to infiltrate all levels of the Ministry of the Interior, which overseas the National Police and Border forces. This allowed all manner of parties to enrich and empower themselves at the national as well as local level. While the Ministry of Defense has made great strides towards becoming a non-sectarian servant of the Iraqi government and people, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) has grown more sectarian and more self-serving of its members and their allies.

All the while, other powerful Shia figures were (and are) still viable – especially Ayatollah al-Sistani (who has assumed a calming, relatively non-political role; in my opinion he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize)(7) and Aziz al-Hakim, also of distinguished lineage and leader of the ISCI political party.(8) Sadr announced earlier this year that he intends to attend seminary (The road to respected religious authority is loooong in Islam – 20 years or more – but it offers eventual, authentic credibility.)…and then last month he extended his “truce”. Whatever.

But the imbalance of Shia control within the Interior Ministry has remained. Police fighting against the Iraqi Army is not unusual and control of revenue and power is openly contested. Corruption is rampant in the MoI. Accountability of the leadership has been minimal. And the lesser punks ran the southern provinces and mahallas (neighborhoods) as they wished. Finally – and I assure you, independent of US control(9) – the Iraqi government decided to bust its move to rein in the lawlessness of the south. I only hope that it is a precursor to cleaning out the central government in Baghdad (read MoI). Prime Minister Maliki, in the fashion of Iraqi bravado, flew down to oversee the fight…but many think he is only a spectator to the al-Hakim v Sadr showdown. My main question is: do the Shia need to experience their own Fallujah? The one of 2004 occurred in distant Anbar, and to the Sunnis…do the Shia need to witness for themselves what it is like when Hell comes for breakfast?

I can already hear the nattering commentators over the next two weeks preceding Gen Petraeus’ report to Congress: “Nothing has changed!” “The surge has failed!” “This is just more of the same!” …blah blah blah. Fact is, this is the next logical, necessary step – the elephant in the room, the showdown that has been aching to happen. At least all players are now having to show their hands. Sorta. But certainly more so than before.

For a historical context, please consider…

On the slow process of government building: Re-read the Federalist Papers, and look at the 8-year period between the passage of the Articles of Confederation and the ratification of the Constitution. We had plenty of confrontation, ugly strife, threatened secessions, and outright, armed group violence. Now we are witnessing the same labor pains, except within a perfect storm of societal dysfunction. Late 18th-century America was a raw, untamed land, but it had none of the centuries of resentment, survival only at other’s loss, and legacy of ineffectual and outright failed foreign meddling suffered in Mesopotamia. It is AMAZING that Iraq has come this far so soon.

I just want to cry warning before the storm of BS to which we are all about to be subjected. This is the crucial period, the one where we begin to solidify all for which we have worked and bled.

Geeez – I can’t believe I wrote a letter with footnotes, for Pete’s sake…

My best to all, and semper fidelis.


(1) Turkey is the number one investor in Northern Iraq and badly wants to join the EU; it is not in their interest to disrupt Kurdish growth. They are just afraid of Kurds inside Turkey getting ideas. Careful reading of the news reflects mostly symbolic protests by the Kurdish Regional Gov’t, since the separatist rebels (PKK) frustrate the Kurds themselves as obstacles to growth and tranquility.

(2) The Anbar-born “Awakening” movement is not to be confused with any other similarly-named groups elsewhere in Iraq!

(3) No reliable census has been taken in decades, so we don’t really know the full demographic picture. Even the upcoming census will be a potentially violent fight, since it will influence power. It is estimated that the Iraqi population has grown from approx 16 million to 26 million since only 1992. This same data vacuum applies to petroleum resources – we only think we know how much oil there is, and where.

(4) The example is deliberately narrow. Besides, the demographics are such that southern Iraq more closely resembles apartheid South Africa. Festering resentment from long injustice belongs not to a minority, but to a significant majority, and they have plenty reason to desire a revenge that been due for six centuries or more.

(5) Iran’s self-interest in Iraqi affairs is evident, but the REAL story is that Shias in Iraq who may enjoy personal political and economic self-determination is far more threatening to the Iranian ayatollahs than the converse. And never underestimate the Arabic antipathy for all things Persian, regardless of a shared religion.

(6) Very much like Arafat’s tenuous leadership of Hamas in the last years of his life.

(7) Sistani holds all the credible authority Sadr covets – one word from the ayatollah would open floodgates of sectarian violence that would rival that seen in Rwanda…and the potential for catastrophe would be even greater than that undeniable African horror, since it could easily engulf the millions of the entire Middle East, and beyond.

(8) The Hakim v Sadr face-off also carries tones of class conflict, as Hakim’s followers are generally more educated and middle class. It will be interesting to see if this alternative to the underclass gains influence.

(9) This concisely illustrates the U.S. quandary: isn’t Iraqi self-determination what we espouse and hope to encourage, despite our fears of its wisdom?

Thank you Major High for this candid update. We hope to hear from you again soon.

Richard S. Lowry is the author of Marines in the Garden of Eden and The Gulf War Chronicles.


  1. LtCol P says:

    That's the best analysis I've read in a long time. Thanks for the post.

  2. Slab says:

    His first footnote goes right along with what I've been told by several Iraqi Kurds. We had an excellent interpreter in 2006 who was Kurdish, and said all along that the Iraqi Kurds have no interest in uniting with the Turkish or Iranian Kurds. I'm not familiar with the "human terrain" of Kurdistan, but I believe it boils down to different tribes. Sort of like the Ghilzai and Durrani Pashtuns in Afghanistan.

  3. Lisa Milkovich Panci says:

    I can believe you wrote a letter with footnotes! Good to see you're alive and well…